October 3, 2008

Can This Be As Good As the 1981 Original?

THE problem facing a film like this is a classic TV version that still stands the test of time.

Made in 1981 and starring a youthful Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, the critically acclaimed and epic 11-hour series became the definitive adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel.

To be fair, it's an almost impossible task to condense everything into two hours for the big screen. So purists be warned, the scissors have been at work and cut out a lot, but it stays pretty true to Waugh's original plot.

The film is lavish, lush and frightfully posh. Actor Matthew Goode follows in Jeremy Irons' footsteps as the aspiring painter Charles Ryder. Middleclass, cold, and atheist, he becomes infatuated with the wealthy, troubled and very Catholic Marchmainfamily.

His first introduction to them is at Oxford, where he befriends the colourful Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) who takes him to his family's pad, Brideshead.

To call it a pad is to call Ben Nevis a wee hill. Charles is instantly seduced by its grandeur.

Here, he meets and falls in love with Sebastian's beautiful sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). He is also introduced to their domineering and overpowering mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson).

She welcomes Charles into the family and entrusts him to keep a watchful eye on her wayward son.

She's convinced he can be a stable influence on Sebastian's heavy drinking and apparently homosexual lifestyle. Where Sebastian's sexuality is hinted at in the book and the TV series, it's positively screaming here.

Catholic guilt is one of the big themes. Here we have a family torn apart by its faith, but who clearly yearn for salvation, so expect much angst as the Charles-Sebastian-Julia and mother superior Lady Marchmain story unfolds. The production values arefirst-class.

The Twenties period detail is spot on and, as with the TV series, Castle Howard once again doubles for the magnificent Brideshead.

And the relatively unknown leads offer reliable performances, especially Goode's hard-to-read Charles Ryder and Ben Whishaw's tortured Sebastian.

And then there is Emma Thompson. She is particularly superb as the brittle, pious Lady Marchmain and does no wrong. It being that good, I'll go so far as to call an early Best Supporting Actress nod for her performance.

Director Julian Jarrold's movie is a solid, old-school, period drama that wouldn't look out of place in a Merchant Ivory box-set. Which is praise indeed, although this is certainly no Howard's End or Remains Of The Day.

Brideshead Reinvented then? Nearly. But not quite. The TV version still has to be beaten.

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